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How I conquered my fear of phone calls (and you can too)

Some of us aren’t “phone people.” But as we all embrace social distancing, this is why you should give the humble phone call a try.

How I conquered my fear of phone calls (and you can too)
[source images: Anna Valieva/iStock; lukaves/iStock]
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When the phone rings, I panic. The sound is alarming—like the honking of a car, the wail of a police siren, the shattering of glass.

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Sure, there are more important things happening in the world, like the global pandemic that has forced many of us to self-quarantine. A collapsing economy. An uncertain future. A national crisis.

But on a more prosaic level, social distancing means, in all likelihood, that we will spend more time on the phone.

This is kind of terrifying. I know I’m not alone in my phone-phobia. It seems like everyone under the age of 50 says, “I’m not a phone person,” and according to one study, the average American spends 26 minutes a day texting, and only 6 talking on the phone.

 Yet I’m worse than most. Consider my bona fides: 

  1. Since I only make about five outgoing calls per month, I’ve banished the phone app from the dock of my iPhone.
  2. Because I often let calls go to voicemail, my friends once launched what they called a “phone blitzkrieg” to breach my phone defenses: Ten of them called in succession until I picked up.
  3. Once when I called my sister to wish her happy birthday, she said, “You know, you haven’t called me since my last birthday?”

This phone-phobia has cost me both personally and professionally. There are too many friends—close friends, lifelong friends—with whom I have fallen out of touch. I regret not calling my grandparents more before they passed away. A call meant a lot to Grandma, and cost me so little, yet I rarely made the effort. 

On the work front, I dread calling interview sources or speaking with my editors. (Fast Company editors excluded, of course.) For years I laughed off my aversion to the phone—ha ha, just one of my little ticks, a fun quirk—yet recently I recognized it for what it was: an actual anxiety.

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Yet anxieties can be treated. Maybe I could try some kind of “exposure therapy” to conquer my fears? A few weeks before the onset of social distancing—the timing of this exercise is something of a bizarre coincidence—I reached out to Dr. Debra Hope, the director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and co-author of Managing Social Anxiety: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Approach, and asked her for a game plan. (Hope clarified that she could not give me treatment in this capacity but would share some general principles.)

When Hope works with patients on social anxiety, she’ll begin with something called cognitive restructuring, where you pay attention to your thoughts about the phobia, and look for something called “automatic thoughts.” Hope gives an example: Let’s say you have anxiety about work calls, and you might think, “I won’t sound competent on the phone, because I’ll stumble over my words.” Once you’ve identified that thought, she says to look for the logical errors. Challenge the assumption. There’s a good chance you’re doing what she calls “catastrophizing.”

Instead you might ask yourself, “Are you 100% certain you’ll look incompetent?” says Hope. “Will you be totally incompetent? Clearly you won’t be totally incompetent. It’s more likely a gray area.” Then come up with something you can say back to that catastrophizing, as a retort. Such as: “Stumbling over my words a little bit doesn’t mean that I’m totally incompetent.” Even that little concession helps reduce the anxiety. Then condense it: “Stumbling doesn’t equal incompetence.” Hope suggests writing this on a sticky note on your desk, and focus on the sticky when making your calls. Stumbling doesn’t equal incompetence. (For further reading on this technique, Hope recommends the book Feeling Good, by David Burns.)

Part of my phobia is driven by anxiety, and part is just plain laziness—the phone feels like a chore. To tackle this lazy mind-set, Hope says it can be helpful to do a quick cost/benefit analysis of the call, as you’ll often realize that the good outweighs the bad. “Yes, it’s aversive,” she says. “But how long does it last? How bad is it? And what are the benefits of the call?” For example, if you’re in sales and you dread calling a prospective client, remind yourself of the call’s underlying reason—you want to land that customer, because you want more revenue, because you like money. Focus on the purpose. “It’s just like going to the dentist,” Hope says. “You might hate going to the dentist, but you don’t want your teeth falling out.”

Now it’s time for the exposure therapy itself. There are a couple of different approaches: One method is to start by tackling your biggest fears first (sink or swim), and the other is to gradually work your way up to the higher anxiety calls—easy, medium, then hard.

I opt for the latter. Let’s do this.

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Easy: 3 days

 The exact type of phone exposure could be different for each person. Hope says that some people are able to place the outgoing call fairly easily, but they struggle with a longer conversation. For me it’s the opposite. I’m okay once the call has momentum, but it’s the very act of placing—or answering—the call that stabs me with panic. I trip over the first few awkward pauses. I’m never sure who should speak first. I’m bad at openers and introductions on the phone; for example, as I waffle between saying “how’s it going” and “what’s up,” I might blurt out, “how’s it up?”

So to overcome this aversion to beginning calls, Hope suggests that I practice making a burst of calls that are short, low stakes, and even “fake,” if necessary. “You can even call a dentist’s office just to ask what time they close,” she suggests. (Note: Again, this all happened a few weeks ago, in the now faraway era before social distancing.) 

I began with a place of comfort: a bar. I wanted to know if an Irish pub had a happy hour, and even though I could almost certainly obtain this information on their website, I actually pressed the dreaded “Call” button (who does this?!?), and felt the familiar squeeze in my stomach. “Hi there, how’s it going, how are you,” I blabbered, off to a strong start. Stumbling doesn’t equal incompetence. Stumbling doesn’t equal incompetence, although, let’s be honest, that sounded pretty incompetent. I continued. “I, um, am hoping to find out the hours to your happy hour?”

“Four to six.”

“Great, thank you!”

“No problem, man. Have a good one.”

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That wasn’t so hard. I wasn’t totally incompetent. Emboldened, I called a pizza joint for a delivery, instead of using the app. I called a tennis center to ask about their rates. I called a coworking space to inquire about membership. For the next few days, I basically turned the clock back to 1997, pre-internet, stopping just short of dialing Moviephone for show times. I called the pharmacist. After a promising first date, the next day I called the woman to say hello, instead of texting. (Kidding. There are limits, and the goal of this project is not self-mutilation.)

Medium: 4 days

I’m not yet ready to face my biggest demon, the Big Catch-Up calls. (I’ll save those for “Hard.”) So for the next several days, I focus on two things: calling friends and family just to say hello, and then actually answering the phone when it rings.

I pounced on 10-minute windows as opportunities for quickie calls. I called one friend to briefly geek-out about the election. On my walk home, normally I would listen to a podcast, but instead I called a friend to wish him happy birthday. Or when another friend texted to coordinate dinner plans, and it quickly became clear that we needed to resolve a knot of variables (neighborhood, time, cuisine, who else to invite), I just called him and that actually saved time.

My safety mechanism is to let calls go to voicemail. Not today! I made an effort to pick up the phone whenever someone called, even if the timing was bad. It was surprisingly easy to answer the phone and say, “Hey! I’m tied up, can I call you a bit later?”  (Yes, I realize the rest of humanity learned this decades ago. I’m a slow learner.)

Whenever a friend called, I tried to visualize, hypothetically, that instead of calling she happened to bump into me at the coffee shop. In that scenario I would be happy to see her. I wouldn’t cowardly hide behind a menu and snub her, so why shouldn’t I extend the same respect—basic human decency, really—over the phone? So whenever the phone rang, I imagined that they were right in front of me, waving hello, and I chided myself not to be rude. 

Hard: 3 days

 The thing I fear most is the Big Catch-Up call. This is not because I don’t like talking to my friends. I love talking to my friends; it’s genuinely one of the most fulfilling things in my life—but because, out of guilt, I know I’ve let too much time lapse since our last interaction, and I’m anxious about breaking the seal. The more time passes, the harder it is to pick up the phone, which makes more time go by, creating a vicious cycle. (This is a reflection of my neuroses, not our friendship.)

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I haven’t spoken to one of my best friends, Evan, since we went glacier-climbing in Iceland, nearly two years ago. For months I’ve been meaning to call him. Buoyed by the inertia from my Easy and Medium calls, on a Friday evening, with no texting preamble, I just clicked on the phone app—now rightly restored in the iPhone’s quick-access dock.

“Hey, what’s going on,” he said, as if we had spoken yesterday, and instantly we resumed our easy rapport. What was I afraid of?  I made a similar call to another friend, then another. 

I began making more phone dates. The Big Catch-Up call can be tough to spontaneously slot into the evening (or in my case, embarrassingly easy, depending on the week), but when I know it’s coming, it’s mentally “budgeted” into my brain’s calendar. “You around for a catch-up call later this week?” I texted a friend, and then looked forward to the call. Heeding Hope’s wisdom, I tried to remind myself of the underlying purpose of these calls—my friendships are important to me, and the phone is a way to nourish these friendships. I finished each call feeling closer to my friend. 

I’m not pronouncing myself fully cured. Yet I have, at least to some extent, reframed the phone as a force for good, not evil. It’s easier to make outgoing calls. I’m less freaked out by a random ring. I’m looking forward to speaking to my friends, who I cannot see in person, during social distancing. This is not a completed project, and apologies to my friends who I still owe a call . . . let’s talk soon!

Call me. I’ll answer.